Immigration and Reverse Immigration

Border controls over immigration and views about who has a right to cross national frontiers and settle as an immigrant have evoked impassioned debate and conflicting politics. Such issues raise […]
Published on April 11, 2021

Border controls over immigration and views about who has a right to cross national frontiers and settle as an immigrant have evoked impassioned debate and conflicting politics. Such issues raise basic questions about the nation-state, the control over the state’s frontiers, and the nation’s identity. 

National policies do not solely determine and control immigration; it is also tied to transnational and treaty agreements globally.

As Martin Schain notes in his article, “The State Strikes Back: Immigration Policy in the European Union,” in the European Journal of International Law:

Policies decided through the political or administrative process, then, may be less important than they appear to be when rights that derive from treaties and court decisions take precedence. The example that is usually given is the fate of attempts to impose immigration controls in Europe in the 1970s. Ultimately these attempts were unsuccessful in part because of court reversals of attempts to restrict family unification; decisions that were ultimately linked to the development of an impressive range of immigrant rights. In France, after much ambivalence, the centre-right government finally made a decision in September 1977 to suspend family unification for three years. The following year, this decision was reversed by the Council of State, the highest administrative court, thus setting the stage for continuing immigration.1

Canada’s borders have always welcomed the poor, the destitute, and the wretched. A walk through Ireland Park on Toronto’s waterfront provides a grim reminder of the Irish wave. The statues of emaciated, malnourished Irish refugees who were sick with cholera and desperate, serve as a reminder to all. In June 1832, Irish immigrants brought with them cholera associated with human waste and poorly constructed sewers; it was common practice to dump buckets of sewage into the streets where it mixed with horse manure. Men, women, and children, overwhelmingly Catholic, fleeing severe hardship at home, religious persecution, and marginalization, arrived in large numbers along the St. Lawrence.

The cholera brought to Quebec City spread rapidly to Montreal and then to Upper Canada, killing more than 9,000 Canadians. The Irish, poor and almost immediately shunned by the locals, found themselves in shantytowns with even worse drainage or in quarantine facilities (specifically on Grosse Isle), where sanitation was appalling. As a result, the Irish immigrants died in huge numbers; this near-global epidemic was compounded by measles, mumps, and other exotic diseases, which by some accounts claimed 25 percent to 35 percent of the Aboriginal communities they infected.2

The Irish immigration was followed by waves of immigrants from all across the globe; each successive wave had to endure its own challenges before becoming an integral part of the Canadian experience.

In 2019, Canada welcomed over 341,000 permanent residents, including 30,000 resettled refugees. Over 402,000 study permits and 404,000 temporary work permits were also issued.3 Immigration to Canada was and is important to Canada’s socio-economic sustainability.  

The 2020 Annual Report to Parliament on Immigration notes: “Immigration will continue to be a key driver in advancing Canada’s economy, especially in the context of low birth rates and its vital role in growing the working-age population, and it will remain so into the future. By the early 2030s, it is expected that Canada’s population growth will rely exclusively on immigration.”4

According to that report, net immigration accounted for 80 percent of Canada’s population increase between 2017 and 2018, with 20 percent through natural increase.  Canada’s population growth between 2018 and 2019, at 1.4 percent, was the highest rate of growth among G7 nations. The demographic challenges of low birth rates and an aging population are, therefore, not unique to Canada.

Germany has seen a dramatic decline in birth rates since the 1970s. At the same time, average life expectancy has gone up. According to experts, without immigration, the potential number of workers in Germany would decline by as much as 40 percent by 2060. This also means that more people will have retired and those retirements will have to be financed by an influx of immigrants.5

Given the aging demographics and declining, or already low, birth rates in most developed economies, immigration will continue to be an increasingly important source of human capital. But immigration is a complex phenomenon wherein who comes, who stays, who leaves, and why, is not only determined by national political decisions, but also by international treaties and agreements on human rights, as well as the legal frameworks that determine human rights. Two historic global compacts on the international manifestations of migration and displacement were reported for 2020: the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, and the Global Compact on Refugees.6 

The Global Migration Indicators for 2018 provide a snapshot of the scope and impact of global migration:7

  • 66 million adults, or 1.3 percent of the world’s adult population, planned to move permanently to another country in the next twelve months in 2015.
  • 258 million international immigrants were counted globally in 2017— people residing in a country other than their country of birth. This represented 3.4 percent of the world’s total population.
  • 68.5 million individuals were forcibly displaced worldwide due to persecution, conflict, generalized violence, human rights violations, or other reasons by the end of 2017.
  • $466 billion of remittances were sent to low- and middle-income countries in 2017. This is more than three times the size of official development assistance.
  • 102,800 refugees were admitted for resettlement worldwide in 2017.

Following the rational-choice approach of the value-expectation theory of migration, a person chooses his or her place of residence from a set of alternative places by maximizing the sum of utilities over several dimensions. The intention to migrate is influenced, if not determined, by the sum of the expected utilities, with expected utilities categorized according to the dimensions of wealth, status, comfort, suggestion, autonomy, affiliation, and morality. Certain characteristics affect the decision indirectly by influencing the value or expectation components. These characteristics include, first, individual features and features of the household, particularly in connection with demographic or socio-economic variables; second, social and cultural norms; third, personality factors such as a readiness to take risks or adaptability; and fourth, the opportunity structure.8

While there are countless papers on the numerous motives for migration, there are fewer on the reasons for return migration. According to Oded Stark’s “Behavior in Reverse: Reasons for Return Migration,” published in Behavioural Public Policy, numerous factors influence reverse immigration. Only three are highlighted here. These factors include changes in purchasing power, accumulation of human capital, and occupational status and social prestige.     

As Stark points out, if “the reason for undertaking migration is to reach a well-defined target, and if the reason for return migration is that the target has been reached, then understanding the nature of the target and fine-tuning the policy measures will be better than operating independently of aligning with the target.”9

One consideration is based on purchasing power. Stark describes the cost-benefit analysis on the basis of purchasing power as follows:

Suppose that an individual chooses freely between two locations where he can live and workin the destination (city) or in the place of origin (village)and that early in life he prefers to migrate to the city than to stay in the village. The observation that quite often the duration of labor migration is shorter than the individual’s working life implies city-to-village migration. 10


…an increase in purchasing power in the home village, and a rise in wages in the city shorten the period of migration. Conventional migration models might have led us to expect that higher wages at destination would increase the relative attraction of the destination, presumably prolonging the stay there. Because life is finite and savings confer higher satisfaction in the home village than in the city when spending them in the home village buys more, return migration is attractive. As regards the response to a rise in wages in the city, our model suggests the converse. An interesting implication of the model is the possibility that a migrant might return home even though the wages there are zero. Once again, the reasoning is that the consequent possibility to save more in the city when wages there increase, results in spending time in the home village having greater appeal because it allows for drawing on savings there to improve consumption.”11

Another factor for reverse migration is based on a model in which working abroad enhances skills for work at home in a manner that work at home cannot. This is a construct based on wage function that relates positively the earning possibilities at home to the time spent working abroad, and is best summarized in the words of the original article:

The very purpose of migration is to lift the earning prospects at home. While living at home, as such, confers utility that living abroad does not, skill enhancement abroad, leading to a higher wage at home, can encourage migration even if the wage differential between abroad and home is negligible or negative, and can attract return migration even if the wage differential between abroad and home is positive. The combination of acquisition abroad of skills valuable in the home country and the preference for living at home compels a migrant to weigh the acquisition of additional skills and the associated extended stay abroad against a longer spell at home during which the higher wage can be enjoyed at home.”12

As David Zweig notes, international migrants who have upgraded their economic resources and human capital are expected to “vote with their feet” in pursuit of better employment opportunities and lifestyles in their home country.13 A proportion of immigrants also develop new patterns of post-national citizenship, characterized by dual citizenship, or residence in one country and citizenship in another, patterns protected by rights regimes under international treaties and law.14 

A third phenomenon this research identifies is that of occupational status and social prestige, a theory of migration as a response to occupational stigma. 

Migration of this nature is usually by unskilled workers who are reluctant to perform degrading work at home, yet do not mind doing the very same work away from home. However, migration could also be undertaken in pursuit of occupational status by skilled workers. Many nationals from a number of developing countries such as India and China in recent times and Israel, Japan, and Korea in the 1960s and 1970s, who obtained their PhDs in the USA, returned home. While these individuals could have commanded good salaries in the USA, they nonetheless went back to receive considerably lower salaries at home. Drawing, with some modification, on the model developed by Fan and Stark, we can shed light on this phenomenon of return migration from a new angle. Fan and Stark assume that individuals derive utility from two sources: income and occupational status. Fan and Stark contend that an individual with a prestigious occupationsay, a university professorenjoys occupational status. Moreover, the shorter the social distance between that individual and the people in his living environment, the higher his utility from occupational status. The esteem that the individual experiences is closely related to the social group to which he belongs, and to the psychological distance between himself and that group. In the USA, the social distance between, for example, an individual with a PhD who comes from Korea and the community he lives in is usually large. Consequently, he derives little status (utility) from being, say, a professor in the USA. In Korea, however, the social distance between himself and his community is short. People in his social group (family members, old classmates, and so on) bask in his glory. This is valuable to him; namely, he derives considerable utility from being a professor in his home country. Thus, individuals may choose to migrate back to their home country in order to draw away from a social group that is a large social distance from them and immerse themselves in a social group that is a small social distance from them. The model developed by Fan and Stark therefore implies that the migration of skilled workers can also be related to a desire for occupational status and social distance. This line of reasoning suggests a novel explanation for return migration from rich to poor countries.”15

By some accounts, 70 percent of refugees who fled to Germany from the war in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s had returned to their home countries.16

According to the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, improved political, economic, social, and educational circumstances in Asia are generating new opportunities for migrant talent, students, and labour. As a result, potential migrants from Asia are beginning to question the value of migrating outside of the region to countries like Canada. These new opportunities are also exerting a pull on members of Canada’s Asian diaspora from countries such as China, India, and South Korea, especially those who are frustrated by the difficulty of breaking the “glass ceiling,” those who feel their qualifications are under-appreciated or underutilized (so-called “brain waste”), and those who lack a sense of social belonging in Canada. The appeal is even extending to Canadians who do not have family connections to Asia but whose skill sets are well matched to take advantage of professional opportunities there.17  

The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa also notes that many young and skilled African immigrants are going back to their homelands from North America and Western Europe, to take advantage of new growth and employment opportunities. The commission notes: “If the 1980s and 1990s were characterized by the brain drain phenomenon—when skilled Africans went abroad in search of greener pastures—these days they are going back home.”18

Indeed, the United Nations and the OECD report that migration for work had risen by one-third since 2000 to 2014. The OECD report notes that although one in nine university graduates from Africa now lives and works in the West and many may not return, skilled workers are six times more likely to stay away. A remarkable new trend is happening. In some countries, the brain drain has reversed its flow. The causes are fascinating, and there is reason to be optimistic that the vicious cycle can be broken, transforming the balance of hope and opportunity between developing and developed economies. The report cites a study by LinkedIn, the world’s largest online professional network and recruitment platform, which measured the net international movement of talent among its members. Topping the list as a destination are new “talent magnets” including the United Arab Emirates, Nigeria, South Africa, India, and Brazil.19

David Heenan, a leading expert on globalization, noted in his book, Flight Capital: The Alarming Exodus of America’s Best and Brightest, that although for centuries, many of the world’s most talented scientists, academics, and mathematicians regarded the United States as the promised land, now the tide has turned.20 Heenan travelled to eight countries on three continents over five years—Ireland, Iceland, Israel, India, China, Taiwan, Singapore, and Mexico—to study what he calls America’s “reverse brain drain.” Heenan warns that if this exodus continues, America’s technological and scientific preeminence and its economic strength will be in jeopardy. He notes: “Forget terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. The next global war will be fought over human capital.”21 

Even the American Management Association raises concerns about the rate at which talented professionals are heading back to their home countries—up to one thousand per day. More than five thousand seasoned, tech-savvy professionals have repatriated to India from the U.S. in the last two years alone.22

Interestingly, the last remaining Vietnamese refugee in Malaysia, out of more than two hundred and fifty thousand “boat people” who landed on the shores of Pulau Bidong, off the coast of Terengganu in Malaysia over 30 years ago, returned home in 2005. During his time at the refugee centre, he took classes to learn English and auto mechanic skills.  Now 43, Doan Van Viet left Kuala Lumpur International Airport on August 28, 2005, stating that going back would enable him to be close to his family whom he had not seen since he left home.23  

It is unlikely that any of the original Irish refugees to Canada would have returned to Ireland. But conditions change, including changes in purchasing power, accumulation of human capital, occupational status, and social prestige. By the way, by 2018 the number of people of Irish origin returning to live in Ireland from abroad had overtaken those emigrating for the first time in ten years.24

Many factors and incentives impact the decision and motivation to migrate, including disasters, conflict, and climate change—what I term primary drivers of migration. The intent here is not to be exhaustive, as much as to expand the notion that all migration is not permanent, that reverse immigration is a real and developing concern, and that understanding the underlying secondary drivers of migration (purchasing power, accumulation of human capital, occupational status, and social prestige) deserve greater focus by policy-makers and decision-takers than they presently receive. 

Reverse migration in effect becomes a secondary contribution by host countries, like Canada, towards enhancing the social and human capital that returns, thereby increasing expectations, potential, and capacity for the advancement of good governance, free market economies, and social development.


Anil Anand is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

[show_more more=”SeeEndnotes” less=”Close Endnotes”]

  1. Martin A. Schain, “The State Strikes Back: Immigration Policy in the European Union,” European Journal of International Law 20, no. 1 (2009): 93109.
  2. John Douglas Belshaw, “Canadian History: Pre-confederation,” Open Textbook Project, 2018.
  3. Refugees and Citizenship Canada, “2020 Annual Report to Parliament on Immigration,” for the period ending December 31,
  4. Ibid.
  5. Dmytro Kaniewski, “Germany Needs Immigrants to Stay Competitive: Economist,” Deutsche Welle, November 7, 2019,
  6. World Immigration Report 2020, The International Organization for Migration (IOM),
  7. “Global Migration Trends,” The International Organization for Migration (IOM),
  8. Sonja Haug, “Migration Networks and Migration Decision-making,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 34, no. 4 (2008): 585605.
  9. Stark, 104126.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid..
  13. David Zweig, Kellee S. Tsai, and Alwyn Didar Singh,”Reverse Entrepreneurial Migration in China and India: The Role of the State,” World Development 138: 105192.
  14. Schain, 93109.
  15. Stark, 104126.
  16. Michelle Martin, “Germany’s Merkel Says Refugees Must Return Home Once War Over,” Reuters: First Post, January 30, 2016,
  17.   Staff, “Brain Drain to Brain Gain: Reverse Migration to Asia,” Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada,
  18.   Aissata Hadara, “No Place Like Home: Africa’s Skilled Labour Returns,” Africa Renewal, UN Economic Commission for Africa, August 2013,
  19. Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, “How to Reverse the Brain Drain,” World Economic Forum, October 23, 2014,
  20. David A. Heenan, Flight Capital: The Alarming Exodus of America’s Best and Brightest, (Mountain View, CA: Davies-Black Publishing, 2005).
  21. Ibid. 
  22. Staff, “Dealing with America’s Alarming ‘Reverse Brain Drain,’” American Management Association, January 24, 2019,
  23. Staff, “Last of Vietnamese Boat People in Malaysia Returns Home,” United Nations News, August 30, 2005,
  24. Ciara Kenny and Eoin Burke-Kennedy, “‘Brain Drain’ Reversed as Ireland Sees Highest Immigration Since 2008,” The Irish Times, August 29, 2018,


Photo by Airam Dato-on on Unsplash.

Featured News


In Case of Emergency, Read This! Alberta’s Covid-19 Report

In Case of Emergency, Read This! Alberta’s Covid-19 Report

Despite the wreckage wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic – social disintegration, ruined lives, physical and economic tolls – the governments and public officials who “managed” the emergency have been decidedly uninterested in assessing their performance. Except in Alberta, where a government-appointed panel just released its Final Report. Though predictably attacked by politicians, media and “experts” who can abide no dissent, the report makes many sensible recommendations, Barry Cooper finds. The report calls for emergency management experts – not doctors or health care bureaucrats – to be in charge when such disasters strike, with politicians who are accountable to the people making the key decisions. Most important, the report demands much stronger protection for the individual freedoms that panic-stricken governments and overbearing professional organizations so readily quashed.

How “Woke-ism” Threatens Academic Freedom

How “Woke-ism” Threatens Academic Freedom

In November 2022, Paul Viminitz, a professor in the philosophy department at the University of Lethbridge, invited me to give a talk on the threat “woke-ism” poses for academic freedom. After pressure mounted to cancel the talk, the president of the University of...

New Zealand’s Rejection of Woke

New Zealand’s Rejection of Woke

‘Oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them’ has long been conventional Westminster wisdom. What is remarkable about Labour’s election defeat is how significantly they lost. It was an historic turnaround from 50 percent support at the 2020 election to just...